Stuart Davis (American, 1892-1964),
oil on canvas, 40 x 50¼, 101.6 x 127.64 cm
Lent by the University of Nebraska at Omaha, L-1974.71; Art © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Stuart Davis came of age as an Ashcan School acolyte in the Robert Henri circle. A fluent draftsman, sensitive colorist, and keen observer, he was initially fascinated by New York City's varied architecture and bustling street life. Davis changed direction in 1913 after participating in the Armory Show, the pivotal exhibition that provided many Americans with their first significant experience of European Modern art. Convinced that American art could combine vernacular themes and new methods of pictorial construction, Davis invented a personal form of Cubism — bright, improvisatory, and composed of lines and planar facets describing the sights, objects, and sounds that captured the excitement of this country's technological age. His passion for jazz music, an American invention, became a particular influence on his art. Throughout his career Davis made variations upon the themes in his many paintings, drawings, and murals, always managing to incorporate fresh tone, texture, color, shape, and energy.
An enigmatic composite of images, American Painting sums up Davis' multifaceted career. It contains references to many things that stood for the new, now, and national, which for Davis included skyscrapers, racing planes, even cartoon characters — all innovations introduced or popularized in his lifetime. Duke Ellington's lyrics "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing" appear in the upper left corner. As originally submitted to the first Whitney Biennial exhibition in 1932, American Painting was partly a response to Regionalism, which the leftist-leaning Davis found unacceptably provincial and conservative. His disagreements with Thomas Hart Benton, also workng in New York at this time, were both public and increasingly personal.
Always the experimentalist, Davis returned to work on this canvas in the 1940s and 50s, painting at what has been described as a glacial pace. The added overlay of color blocks and word shapes, as he called them, illustrates Davis' later sensibilities, in which references to life's fast pace were less specific and more symphonic — full of color, syncopated rhythms, key phrases, and repeated motifs.